Friday, July 29, 2016

99 RIVER STREET (1953)

United Artists, 83m 30s

Though not a true boxing film, the gripping 99 RIVER STREET is a brisk film noir with a retired boxer as its scrappy featured protagonist. The opening sequence sets the tone well with the bruising action of a championship heavyweight prizefight. Challenger Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) accounts for himself admirably versus the reigning champ until an eye injury inhibits his fighting ability. As it turns out, Driscoll is watching his failed bid for the heavyweight crown on television, as part of a series called "Great Fights of Yesterday." Like so many other noir examples, 99 RIVER STREET revolves around a significant past event that defines the present for the main character, who in this case psychologically remains confined to the savagery of the squared circle despite having been barred from it for medical reasons.

A career on the ropes

"I could've been the champ."

An easily riled man to begin with, Driscoll encounters plenty of reasons to embrace his violent pugilistic past. The post-boxing world has not been terribly accommodating to Driscoll, who finds himself stuck with a compromised optic nerve, a dull cabbie job, and perhaps worst of all, vitriolic criticism from his ex-showgirl wife Pauline (Peggie Castle). Not content with the couple's current financial position and unimpressed with her husband’s dream of one day owning a gas station, Pauline has taken up with Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter), a "reckless" jewel thief with a plan to take Pauline to France after settling his 400-carat score. The plot gains momentum when fence Christopher (Jay Adler) attempts to distance himself from the caper that, naturally, did not quite go as outlined. The situation is not helped by the unwelcome presence of Pauline, who ignites tensions within the jewel thief network. Pauline personifies the alluring but no-good noir femme fatale, and director Phil Karlson emphasizes her physicality on multiple occasions, with her tempting body and attractive face framed as her only redeeming qualities.

Transpiring mostly over the course of one night, 99 RIVER STREET exploits the dark side of human nature at every turn, as people cast others aside in pursuit of their own wants. That sort of reflection on human nature is not limited to arch criminals like Rawlins and Christopher. Even ostensibly benign personalities are capable of deception and impulsive self-interest. Aspiring stage actress Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), a basically nice city gal, plays an exceptionally cruel trick on her friend Driscoll for the chance to play the lead in a Broadway production. Quite understandably, he becomes upset and roughs up some of the condescending theater producers who collectively wronged him. If that were not enough, the production team then seeks free publicity by sending the police after Driscoll, thus wronging him twice in one evening! "Any time you get hooked up with a dame you're bound to end up in trouble," Driscoll later grumbles.

Recurring low camera angles create unease within interior shots, where people are as likely to turn on each other as not. On these Manhattan streets, disputes are resolved mostly through some type of violence. The pace is relentless as characters are grabbed, pushed, slapped, punched, strangled, and shot. One unfortunate receives the full force of a heavy chain over his cranium. The final confrontation between Driscoll and Rawlins serves as a reenactment of the boxing match that opens the film, and in fact the entire narrative makes the same point:  life never stopped hitting Driscoll after his boxing career ended. The former contender bears resemblance to the returning soldier who finds himself without a clear place in civilian life in many a film noir. For those who take part in combat of any form, perhaps there is no easy exit strategy.

Like other film noirs that conclude on an optimistic note, there is a seemingly false ring here, yet something authentically noir at the same time. A man who almost became heavyweight champion of the world and a once-promising stage actress find service-station bliss in each other's loving arms, as the repression of great aspirations leads to a happy if humble partnership. It is an easy enough lesson to relate to since most of us, like it or not, learn to appreciate successes that may fall a bit short of our original hopes.

Acclaimed director Karlson helmed several other film noirs, the most vital of which was probably KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952, also featuring Payne). 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955) was a lesser noir entry, notable mostly for the presence of hot-tempered war vet Brick (Brian Keith). THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955) is one of the more convincing docudrama noirs of its time, and THE BROTHERS RICO (1957) plays quite well, thanks in part to the presence of dependable noir man Richard Conte. I think 99 RIVER STREET is Karlson's best-realized effort of the bunch, with Payne superbly cast as the down-but-not-out ex-prizefighter. The film is distinguished by its excellent supporting team as well, especially Frank Faylen as cab dispatcher Stan Hogan, who was also Driscoll's former trainer. Jack Lambert offers a fine performance as the impatient thug Mickey, and Jay Adler is probably the best supporting player of all since it does not seem a stretch that his fence character would also run a pet shop. The screenplay is by Robert Smith, who also wrote the screenplay for QUICKSAND (1950) and co-wrote the script for SUDDEN FEAR (1952), two of my favorite underappreciated film noirs. Cinematographer Franz Planer captured additional classics of the genre, including THE CHASE (1946), CRISS CROSS (1949) and 711 OCEAN DRIVE (1950).

Newly re-mastered in HD and framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, this single-layered Blu-ray edition available through Kino Lorber provides a very clean B&W presentation. Though not without a few mild imperfections, this 1080P version is an obvious improvement over the made-on-demand MGM DVD, which was cropped to 1.33:1.

Kino Lorber Blu-ray


When it comes to audio commentary tracks, you know you are in for an education with film noir expert Eddie Muller on the mic. Like any great teacher, Muller makes it fun to learn. His analysis of Karlson's directorial preferences is spot-on, especially in terms of recurring compositions that suggest one character’s dominance over another, or when actors walk into close-ups. Karlson was an appropriate match for producer Edward Small, who preferred directors skilled enough to work creatively within modest budgets. Small was fully aware of the direction commercial filmmaking was headed, with studios functioning more as distribution facilitators than creators of original content. As one might expect, Muller offers in-depth biographical information on the actors, Evelyn Keyes in particular, who was a good friend of his. His commentary even touches accurately on actual boxing, with Muller demonstrating acumen for the sweet science (his father was a longtime boxing writer for the San Francisco EXAMINER).

The only other supplemental material consists of a trailer gallery. Besides the trailer for the film under review, trailers for other titles available from Kino Lorber include HIDDEN FEAR (1957), SHIELD FOR MURDER (1954) and HE RAN ALL THE WAY (1951).

Publicity Photo

Karlson cribs from his own playbook in 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE